The Finishing School Critical Essays

Gail Godwin

The Finishing School

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The novel’s protagonist, forty-four-year-old Justin Stokes, is startled into self-examination when she dreams of Ursula DeVane, the woman most responsible for her decision, many years before, to become an actress. Curious about the power Ursula still exerts after thirty years, Justin determines to examine her mentor’s role in her life. To do so demands that Justin re-create her adolescent self and risk her interpretation of events.

This former self has endured a series of losses. Gone are thirteen-year-old Justin’s beloved grandparents, their comfortable home in Virginia, her charming father, financial security, and social prominence. Not even Justin’s mother, Louise, seems the same. When Louise uproots her children to transplant them to an IBM housing development in Clove, New York, Justin feels completely dislocated.

Life is dismal until Justin discovers Ursula in a deteriorating hut one evening, and the two, despite a thirty-year age difference, become friends. Unconventional, cultivated, intelligent, and provocative, Ursula awakens Justin to life’s possibilities. Many of the lessons she teaches are valuable, especially her encouragement of Justin’s artistic sensibility. There is, however, a dark side to these lessons: an appeal to Justin’s loyalty and her adult understanding of complex personal relationships. This appeal ultimately leads to disaster.

Like most of Gail Godwin’s novels, THE FINISHING SCHOOL presents a tapestry of human relationships that is both artistically crafted and humanly believable. Against this backdrop, Godwin dramatizes her theme of self-exploration with its inherent paradoxes. A well-crafted novel, THE FINISHING SCHOOL will move its readers to consider shifting loyalties within families and the relationship between adolescent and adult selves.